The three consequences of the revolution.

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 futureofwork 1

 "The factory of the future will only have two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment". This gloomy representation of a future where work no longer exists was protrayed by Warren BENNIS who, after his PHD at Boston MIT in the 1950s, became advisor for four different US Presidents and a number of Fortune 500 corporations.

The idea that automation could kill most jobs (in 2013, at Oxford Martin School, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne estimated that 47% of US jobs could be  wiped out) is not new. Yet, enabling an experiment of organization change that would have been previously unthinkable, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the process.

In 1857, Karl Marx envisaged that the arrival point of industrialization would have been the advent of an automaton - what we would now call 'artificial intelligence' -capable of providing us with everything we need, thus, freeing us from work-.

The German philosopher's historical antagonists seem to share this prophecy; at the WORLD ECONOMIC Forum, the heads of the largest multinationals, recommended to gear up to establish a universal income, financed with a robot tax allowed by the enormous leap in productivity which they may generate. The idea that technological progress harbours what is both a tremendous threat and a radiant promise dates back to the time of the first industrial revolutions.

However, forecasts that automatically translate the effects of technology into concrete impact on the lives of people, companies and institutions, should be handled with care. It is unquestionable that the long-term evolution of economic systems has been the one of progressively reducing man's dependence of work. Compared to the years in which class struggle was foreseen by Karl Marx, the time we devote to leisure has increased a lot in the twentieth century. And still, the effect that the Internet was supposed to have on work have not yet materialised. Employment rates have been recently increasing in all countries of the world: in Europe, in the last twenty years, employment rates have risen by almost ten points (as the following graph shows).


And, yet, the weight of labour on GDP decreases. This suggest that its "value" is diminishing and that GID economy-style precarious jobs increase (as the subsequent evidence for the US suggests).



In other words, the number of worked hours is not decreasing, but the convenience to "buy them" is. Alongside, inequality is also growing. On the one hand, there are services such as supermarket checkouts that can already be automated and will therefore soon disappear. On the other hand, it is difficult to image a physiotherapist robot (although there is, indeed, a French company about to introduce one).

In this context of powerful and contradictory evolutions, COVID-19 has arrived to accelerate the change. At the beginning of the pandemic, the effect was rather dramatic, with a loss of jobs fourteen times greater than the one following the 2008 financial crisis. Over time, however, the effect has primarily manifested itself through remote working. Last September, 60% of British workers and 35% of Italian workers went to the office hardly two days a week. Even more interesting is the figure for New Zealand where, after the pandemic has died down, 27% of work continues to be done from home (1).

The effect of this "suspension", however, is cognitive: workers, managers, students, doctors, patients and teachers have been engaged with a large-scale experiment and realized that certain transformations are possible. This will come with three implications that we will soon have to deal with.

The first one has to do with the very nature of organisations. A company or an administration that continues to have half of its people working remotely will have to change the tools with which it measures performance and communicates objectives. It will no longer be able to count on the camaraderie which is created around a coffe machine when looking into each other's eyes. This will also have important effects on individual and sector contracts (how do I define overtime work done at home?) and even on tax legislation (to which region or state should taxes and contributions be paid for a business process with employees spread around the world?). Furthermore, it will also be much more difficult to measure the quality of public services, especially, with regard to classrooms and hospitals and this will be ceratinly a challenge that will need attention.

The second effect is on technologies themselves. We have dealt with the pandemic by using platforms provided by a very few companies (ZOOM, MICROSOFT, GOOGLE) and adapting them to completely different types of encounters and users. This is producing a widening of gaps and, as usual, it is the elderly and children who have paid the price of exclusion. There is a plethora of possible innovations to which an offer designed entirely for adolescents has not yet responded, and great are the opportunities we would have if, with humilty and pragmatism, States and companies coordinated entrepreneurship in these areas.

The third most devastating impact is political. The pandemic has had the effect of making life better for those who have jobs that can be done remotely. And this is especially true when the occupation has strong intellectual content - and much worse for those who, on the other hand, have jobs that governments have defined as 'essential' (for example, in food logistics and home delivery). The latter are paid less, are exposed to the massive entry of new-generation robots (drones and have faced a chance of contagion and death from COVID-19 ten times greater than the others (as reported y studies in Canada, the United States and confirmed by researchers at the Bank of Italy (2)).

The thing is that if a truly indispensable worker finds himself on the wrong side of a growing inequality, we could soon find ourselves in a condition similar to the one MARX described when observing life in the factories, foreseeing bloody revolutions. The proposal to make a safety net available to all, to be financed for by ROBOTS, as Bill GATES suggested some time ago, seems today to be the visionary provocation on which to build a WELFARE suitable to the 21st century.

It would be vital not only to save cohesion from processes that are digging tunnels under the feet of our fragile certainties, but also to finally make it possible to use the extraordinary potential that we have accumulated in machines. After all, it is a potential which we are giving up because we have convinced ourselves that our social arrangements cannot afford it.



(1) The Economist, Riding high in a workers' world, April 10th 2021

(2) Barbieri, T, G. Basso and Scicchitano (2020), "Italian workers at risk during the COVID-19 epidemic", Inapp Working Paper n46 (also as Banca d'Italia, Occasional Papers, forthcoming).)



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